New Delhi, 15.03.18: At the age of 30, in a long and daunting calculation, Stephen Hawking discovered to his befuddlement that black holes — those mythological avatars of cosmic doom — were not really black at all. In fact, he found, they would eventually fizzle, leaking radiation and particles, and finally explode and disappear over the eons.
Nobody, including Hawking, believed it at first — that particles could be coming out of a black hole. “I wasn’t looking for them at all,” he recalled in an interview in 1978. “I merely tripped over them. I was rather annoyed.”
That calculation, in a thesis published in 1974 in the journal Nature under the title ‘Black Hole Explosions?,’ is hailed by scientists as the first great landmark in the struggle to find a single theory of nature — to connect gravity and quantum mechanics, those warring descriptions of the large and the small, to explain a universe that seems stranger than anybody had thought.
The discovery of Hawking radiation turned black holes upside down. It transformed them from destroyers to creators — or at least to recyclers — and wrenched the dream of a final theory in a strange, new direction. Dennis W Sciama, a cosmologist and Hawking’s thesis adviser at Cambridge, called Hawking’s thesis in Nature “the most beautiful paper in the history of physics.” In 2002, Hawking said he wanted the formula for Hawking radiation to be engraved on his tombstone.
He was a man who pushed the limits — in his intellectual life but also in his professional and personal lives. He traveled the globe to scientific meetings, visiting every continent, including Antarctica; wrote best-selling books about his work; married twice and fathered three children.
He celebrated his 60th birthday by going up in a hotair balloon. The same week, he also crashed his electricpowered wheelchair while speeding around a corner in Cambridge, breaking his leg.
In April 2007, a few months after his 65th birthday, he took part in a zerogravity flight aboard a specially equipped Boeing 727, a padded aircraft that flies a roller-coaster trajectory to produce fleeting periods of weightlessness.
Asked why he took such risks, Hawking said, “I want to show that people need not be limited by physical handicaps as long as they are not disabled in spirit.”
The oldest of four children, Stephen was a mediocre student at St Albans School in London, though his innate brilliance was recognised by some classmates and teachers. Later, at University College, Oxford, he found his studies in mathematics and physics so easy that he rarely consulted a book or took notes. “Nothing seemed worth making an effort for,” he said. The only subject he found exciting was cosmology because, he said, it dealt with “the big question: Where did the universe come from?”
Upon graduation, he moved to Cambridge. Before he could begin his research, however, he was stricken by what his research adviser, Sciama, came to call “that terrible thing.” The young Hawking had been experiencing occasional weakness and falling spells for several years. Shortly after his 21st birthday, in 1963, doctors told him that he had ALS. They gave him less than three years to live.
His first response was severe depression. He dreamed he was going to be executed, he said. Then, against all odds, the disease appeared to stabilise. Though he was slowly losing control of his muscles, he was still able to walk short distances and perform simple tasks, though laboriously, like dressing and undressing. He felt a new sense of purpose.
“When you are faced with the possibility of an early death,” he recalled, “it makes you realise that life is worth living and that there are a lot of things you want to do.”
In 1965, he married Jane Wilde, a student of linguistics. Now, by his own account, he not only had “something to live for”; he also had to find a job, which gave him an incentive to work seriously toward his doctorate.
His illness, however, had robbed him of the ability to write down the long chains of equations. But he turned this handicap into a strength, gathering his energies for daring leaps of thought, which, in his later years, he often left for others to codify in proper mathematical language.
Until 1974, Hawking was still able to get in and out of bed. At Jane’s insistence, he would drag himself, hand over hand, up the stairs to the bedroom every night, in an effort to preserve his remaining muscle tone. After 1980, care was supplemented by nurses.
Hawking retained some control over his speech up to 1985. But on a trip to Switzerland, he came down with pneumonia. Doctors asked Jane if she wanted his life support turned off, but she said no. To save his life, doctors inserted a breathing tube. He survived, but his voice was permanently silenced.
Asked by New Scientist magazine what he thought about most, Hawking answered: “Women. They are a complete mystery.”
In 1990, Hawking and his wife separated after 25 years of marriage; Jane Hawking wrote about their years together in two books, “Music to Move the Stars: A Life With Stephen Hawking” and “Traveling to Infinity: My Life With Stephen.” The latter became the basis of the 2014 movie “The Theory of Everything.” In 1995, he married Elaine Mason, a nurse who had cared for him. She had been married to David Mason, the engineer who had attached Hawking’s speech synthesizer to his wheelchair.
Courtesy: The Times of India